Tuesday, February 19, 2013
This submerged reef off the southern Natal coast has caused the wreck of many ships, but, contrary to popular misconception, not that of the barque Aliwal, after which it was named.
The reason for the shoal bearing the name Aliwal is that it was from this vessel that the mass of rock was first sighted.
The Aliwal was a Byrne settler ship of 425 tons, commanded by Captain Anderson, which carried 117 emigrants from London to Natal, arriving safely on 14 December 1849 (some sources give 10 December). While at anchor at Port Natal, the Aliwal survived two easterly gales without sustaining any damage.
A letter to the editor of the Natal Witness, 14 January 1850, quotes a letter written by Anderson as follows:
'I think you would like to know that about 30 miles to the S.W. from Natal, and distant from the land about 2 miles, I observed a very large and dangerous reef, or shoal, with heavy breakers.'
Prior to Anderson's sighting of the shoal, it had not been alluded to in any shipping directories.
In response to the above letter in the Natal Witness the missionary, JC Bryant, then living at the Ifumi mission station, commented in February 1850:
'To the Editor of the Natal Witness
In the Natal Witness of Jan 18th is an extract of a letter from Captain Anderson of the Barque Aliwal, giving information of a shoal or rock near the coast about 30 miles SW of Natal. From my own observations I can testify to the correctness of Capt. A's statement, as I have often seen from my residence at Ifumi, a line of heavy breakers apparently a mile in length, and about two miles from the shore. I cannot give the locality of the rock or shoal better than by saying it appears from the land to be 3 or 4 miles SW of the Umkomazi River. The breakers, however, are not always seen, in nine days out of ten, or perhaps in nineteen out of twenty, the sea appears smooth, and a vessel might pass near the place and no one on board suspect the danger. The breakers commonly appear after a strong southerly wind, and perhaps they may also be affected more of less by the state of the tide.
Feb 12th, 1850.
In his book 'Southern Lights', Harold Williams mentions that the shoal is approximately 4 kilometres long and 1 kilometre wide.
'The sharp northern peak is barely covered by water and, on the rare occasion, the sea breaks over it. When this occurs the white foam is clearly seen from the shore. The centre of the Aliwal Shoal is approximately 5 kilometres from the coast and Admiralty charts indicate that a natural current of about 3 knots flows from south to north between shore and shoal. Some ships' masters set courses, when travelling up the coast to Durban, which take them through this narrow channel, but the slightest miscalculation or drift can result in disaster.'
Among relatively recent ships lost on the Aliwal Shoal were the Aimee Lykes and the SA Pioneer. The British steamer SS Nebo, while on a voyage from Sunderland to Natal, struck the shoal on 20 May 1884 and sank immediately; she still lies there intact.
The reef is today a mecca for divers.
Aliwal was a place in the Punjab in India, where Sir Harry Smith (Governor of the Cape) gained a decisive victory over the Sikhs on 28 January 1846. Aliwal Street, Durban, may commemorate this battle and the visit to Natal by Sir Harry Smith in 1847, or alternatively may be another memorial to the ship the Aliwal.